Let me be the one, p.3
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       Let Me Be the One, p.3
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         Part #6 of The Sullivans series by Bella Andre
Page 3

  Author: Bella Andre

  Potential? This a-hole thought Vicki had potential?

  When she was a teenager she had potential. A decade and a half later, her sculptures were nothing short of masterful. Ryan should know, considering he owned a half-dozen.

  He had a choice to make. He could either grab James by the throat and slam him against the wall for minimizing Vicki’s incredible talent. . . or he could get them both the hell out of there before he said or did something that would ruin her chances for the fellowship this guy was in charge of.

  Turning to Vicki, he brushed a lock of hair back from her face. “I really feel like an idiot for getting the timing all wrong, baby, but Smith is holding the private screening for us tonight, and you know how much he values your opinion. ” He worked like hell to feign regret at having to pull her away. “We’d better get you over to his house before he throws one of his movie star tantrums. ”

  James immediately stood up, clearly more than a little pissed off at the turn his evening with Vicki had taken. “I can see you have other plans, Victoria. And while I’m disappointed that we didn’t make more progress together, I’m sure if you’re as serious about this fellowship as you seemed to be at the outset, you will let me know when you have time to meet again privately. Good night to both of you. ”

  * * *

  “What were you doing in here alone with that asshole?”

  Since the day she moved away at the end of their Sophomore year in high school, whenever Vicki had thought of Ryan Sullivan, she’d always pictured him laughing.

  He wasn’t laughing now.

  On the contrary, his gaze was so intense that a shiver ran up her spine.

  Her breath had gone from the first moment Ryan had walked into the private cocktail lounge. It was no different from the way she’d felt around him at fifteen. No wonder, given that he’d only become better looking over the years. No longer a gorgeous boy, he was all man now.

  And, oh my, the way Ryan kissed, even when it was no more than just his lips against hers. . .

  Working overtime to get her brain to click back into gear on the problem at hand, she was about to answer him when she looked down at their hands, still linked together.

  The last thing she wanted was to let his hand go, but she knew better than to pretend that any of this was real, no matter how tempting it was to do just that. So even though she’d wanted to hold his hand like this since they were teenagers, Vicki forced herself to slide her fingers from his.

  “James came by the fellowship building this morning and asked if he could stay to watch me work for a while. I assumed it was part of his critiquing style. You know, that he was just as interested in my technique as in the finished sculpture. ”

  “How long did he watch you?”

  “Twenty minutes, maybe. ” Twenty incredibly long and icky minutes in which she’d felt like James had been studying her more closely than her project. “The thing is, before he left, he really did have some brilliant suggestions for me. ”

  So brilliant that she had let herself write off his slightly creepy behavior as purely artistic interest.

  “And then later, at a welcome party the fellowship board threw for all of the applicants, he told me that the top candidates were going to be meeting here afterward. ”

  “There were supposed to be other people here?”

  “By the time I arrived, he said everyone else had already dropped in and that he was glad it was just down to us tonight so that he could give me special attention. ”

  Bile rose in her throat as she remembered the way he’d moved closer and closer during their conversation and started touching her arm and then her hands—even when he had to know how off-limits a sculptor’s hands were. What he’d said to her hadn’t been much better: I’ve coached many other talented sculptors toward greatness. It’s considered quite an honor to work under me. Especially as I know you’re all alone in San Francisco, I feel that I could really help you make your way here by introducing you to everyone you should know. Doesn’t that sound good to you, Victoria?

  It was one thing to trust the wrong man at twenty-two. But she’d been in the art world long enough by now to know better than to be so naïvely flattered by a powerful man’s attention.

  “Jesus, Vicki, why didn’t you kick him in the nuts and get the hell out of here?”

  “I wanted to,” she said softly, “but the fact is that regardless of what you and I think of him, James Sedgwick is one of the leaders of the West Coast art world. The only thing I could think of doing that wouldn’t jeopardize my chances at the fellowship was to pretend that I was seeing someone so that he wouldn’t take my rejection of his advances personally and turn it against me. That was when I went into the bathroom to text you. ” She’d prayed that Ryan would not only get her messages, but come right away. Which he had, thank God.

  But even after her explanation, Ryan still said, “You need to turn him in to the rest of the fellowship board. ”

  She sighed. “I doubt it would do any good when everything he’s done so far could so easily be argued as me mistaking friendly support for something more. He hasn’t done or said anything blatantly threatening. ”

  “I saw him put his hands on you,” Ryan growled.

  “He’s an art critic and curator, with a specialty in sculpture, so everyone knows it’s a very touchy-feely job in a lot of respects. I’m sure if I raised a stink and called him on it, he would just laugh and say he’s like that with men and women and sculptures alike. And in the end, it would only hurt my chances for the fellowship by deflecting attention away from my project. ”

  Ryan stared at her for several long moments. “You really want this, don’t you?”

  In those final months leading up to her divorce, Vicki’s ex-husband Anthony had told her again and again that the only reason she’d had any success at all was because he was one of the foremost sculptors in the world, and that she’d be nothing without him. Since then, she’d heard whispers from friends in the European art community that he’d been working to turn people against her. She wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that it was true. His once awestruck wife leaving had been a blow that Anthony's ego had never seen coming.

  Vicki had come to San Francisco to win the coveted fellowship and prove once and for all that she had what it took to make it as a sculptor. Not just to her ex, but to herself.

  It was long past time to prove to herself that she hadn’t wasted her life chasing a dream.

  “I do want it, Ryan. ” She paused. “But even more than that, I need it. It’s the next step for me and my career, the perfect way to start fresh and build my reputation as a sculptor in the United States. So if I win the fellowship—”

  “When you win it,” he cut in.

  “—I want to know that I got it because of the quality of my work. ” Not because she’d agreed under pressure to sleep with one of the board members.

  “I wanted to kill the creep for touching you. ” A muscle jumped in Ryan’s jaw. “Hell, I still want to tear him apart for even looking at you the wrong way. ”

  “All these years, when I thought about us seeing each other again, I never thought it would be like this. I’m really sorry for roping you into my mess. ”

  “I like ropes,” he teased her with the naughty grin he was so famous for.

  How could she do anything but smile back at the most beautiful man she’d ever set eyes on? Vicki was amazed to find out nothing had changed since they were teenagers. Ryan was still just as able to send heat all through her body as he was to make her laugh.

  She’d never met anyone like him before or since.

  His hair was lighter than most of his siblings, shot through with highlights due to all of his time spent in the sun. His long-sleeved cotton shirt had an extra button open at the top, giving her a glimpse of just enough tanned skin to make her lose her train of thought all over again
.

  “Promise me you won’t be alone with him again, Vicki. ”

  “Don’t worry, I won’t make that mistake again. Thanks again for being my ten-minute boyfriend. ”

  “Ten minutes?” Ryan looked surprised to be let off the hook so easily. “When is the board going to decide on the fellowship?”

  “Next week. ”

  “In that case, sign me up to be your one-week boyfriend. ”

  “What? No. You can’t do that for me. ” When Ryan lifted an eyebrow at her quick refusal, she said, “Seriously, thank you so much for stepping in tonight. But you don’t have to pretend to be dating me for a week. If James asks about the two of us, I’ll just explain that we had a fight and are taking a break. And I’ll be beyond careful not to put myself in any more situations like this with him again. ”

  Unfortunately, Ryan looked anything but convinced. “You asked me to come here tonight because you felt like you were all out of options, right?”

  She blew out a breath. “Right. ”

  “When we were kids, you were nearly killed pushing me out of the way of that car. You saved me, Vicki. Big time. Now it’s my turn to return the favor. ”

  Everyone thought Ryan Sullivan was so easygoing. And it was true that he was quick with laughter, that he made everything look easy. But she knew how much focus went into his ease. When she’d be at her potting wheel in her parents’ garage, he’d throw balls at a soft target he set up on her driveway over and over until her fingers were working in time to the constant thud of the ball into the target.

  Now, his focus was on protecting her from James’s less than pure intentions. Ryan was too great not to back her up. And he wouldn’t dream of walking away if he thought she needed him.

  He reached into his wallet and tossed a couple of twenties down on the table. “Let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps. ”

  She felt the same way, surrounded by all that leather and velvet. Everyone at the Pacific Union Club looked like they had metal beams shoved up their you-know-whats.

  Ryan stood up, then waited for her to scoot over to the edge of the couch. And even though she knew his sweetly seductive kiss had all been part of their big act, she was hyperaware of her body around him.

  The fact that her dress was hiking higher and higher up her thighs as she slid along the couch.

  The knowledge that he must have a perfect view of her ample cleavage. The expensive, sky-high heels she’d put on to pretend an Army brat like her belonged in a place like this.

  His hand was warm on her back as they headed for the exit. She tried to remind herself that it was no different than what any other gentleman would have done. But her body refused to listen.

  How could it, when it felt so good to be touched by him?

  She’d never been more glad for fresh air. Now all she needed to do was STOP THINKING ABOUT THAT KISS and everything would be fine. Which, unfortunately, meant she should probably call it a night. Because every second she spent with Ryan only made her want to do it again.

  “Why didn’t you call me to tell me you were back in town?”

  “I know how busy you are with the team and your family and—” Your girls. “—your social life. ”

  “I’m never too busy for a friend. ”

  It was exactly why she’d texted him. Because she knew that if anyone would come through for her in a pinch, it would be Ryan. He’d always been different from the other men she knew. Not just because he was worlds better looking than the rest of them, but because she’d never doubted how much he liked her.

  After the star-struck valet asked for an autograph and then went to fetch Ryan’s car, he asked, “Where’s your hotel?”

  Not wanting him to see the dump she was staying in for the time being, she said, “In the Mission. But I can take a cab. ” A bus, actually, because she didn’t have the money to waste on a taxi.
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